Picture books introduce pleasures of language

“Blabbering Bethann”

Chris Britt

“Monkey and Duck Quack Up!”

Jennifer Hamburg, illustrated by Edwin Fotheringham

Let’s revel in the pleasure of language this week. Have you ever had a chance to witness a child discover his first word? And after that breakthrough, did you notice how he blurted that word repeatedly, and with joy?

Especially in this age of communication by shortcut – LOL, JK, LLAP – it seems we forget the power and the glory of vocabulary.

There is no irony in the fact that I’m citing two picture books to make my case for countering that trend—please, just hear me out.

Consider the first book on my list this week: “Blabbering Bethann,” by Tacoma illustrator and cartoonist Chris Britt. This is a rambunctious parable about the consequences of avarice. Bethann is a demanding little girl whose greedy behavior cows her classmates and gets her just about everything she wants – except friends.

In page after page, Britt depicts goggle-eyed kids who are constantly being bullied by this outrageously naughty little girl. Bethann’s loud voice and voracious appetite are visually conveyed by a grotesquely oversized mouth. The signature red bow that floats atop Bethann’s head remains, even as her terrible tantrums transform her into a pterodactyl, a T-Rex, and a tyrannical Queen of the Universe.

Kids will get a kick out of the cartoonish illustrations, but what I really liked was the rich vocabulary Britt employed. “Blabbering Bethann” is a stealth thesaurus. When the title character intimidates a little kid, his knees wobble, wiggle, and shake. When Bethann snatches up the biggest pizza slice, she munches, crunches and lunches.

This is a great story to read aloud – and when you do so, make sure you pull out all the dramatic stops!

In another fun picture book, Seattle illustrator Edwin Fotheringham provides bright and lively illustrations for “Monkey and Duck Quack Up!” Fotheringham has an expansive list of credits that include Mudhoney album covers, Neiman Marcus print ads, illustrations for The New Yorker, and children’s picture books.

This latest collaboration with Austin author Jennifer Hamburg is a fast-paced offering filled with friendship, comedy and lots of rhymes.

In fact, that’s the whole premise underlying “Monkey and Duck Quack Up!” – Monkey ropes his friend Duck into signing up as his partner in a rhyming contest. The prize is a three-day cruise.

But there’s a major roadblock to success. While Monkey is a goal-oriented, type-A personality, Duck is more content to go with the flow. Will they come up with a winning rhyme in time, or will their friendship “quack up”? That burning question, and line after line of energetic cadence, will keep you and your youngsters turning the pages. You’ll be rewarded with not one, but two, twists at the end.

At the risk of sounding like an old fogey, I sometimes fear that this type of interpersonal, cross-generational fun is being eclipsed by the glitzy, bleeping distractions of hand-held devices now being thrust so readily into the hands of tots. Please don’t forget the genuine importance of reading aloud with the youngsters in your life.

The Bookmonger is Barbara Lloyd McMichael, who writes this weekly column focusing on the books, authors and publishers of the Pacific Northwest. Contact her at bkmonger@nwlink.com.